The Uses of Disenchantment: A New Generation of Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

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“Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s essay about coming to the end of being young and in thrall to New York, is an invincible piece of writing. Didion was in her early 30s in 1967, when she wrote the essay that would become part of her celebrated book Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Now she’s 78, and has become just as renowned for writing about the devastations and indignities of old age. But “Goodbye to All That” endures, as a classic of its genre and a guide to a particular time in a certain kind of life.

Didion moved to New York as a starry-eyed 20 year old — “was anyone ever that young? I am here to tell you that someone was” — and spent eight years in love with the city before her enchantment was replaced by exhaustion and despair. By the time she turned 28, she writes, “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

In the years between her arrival at the bus station in a smart new dress and her departure for Los Angeles, Didion stayed out all night and went to lots of parties and was struck by her share of indelible moments. She met everyone there was to meet and skulked around her under-furnished apartment, whose windows she had hung (foolishly, and therefore glamorously) with “fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk.” The longer she stayed, though, the more depressed and impatient she got. None of it felt worthwhile, except as material for the deeply romantic cautionary tale that became “Goodbye to All That.”

Some might find the essay discouraging, but plenty of young writers read it as an enticement, or at least a challenge. After all, in describing New York as a place of heightened senses and jagged emotions, Didion had described tantalizing working conditions for a writer. In Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology edited by Sari Botton that’s explicitly inspired by its namesake essay, 28 writers consider their own experiences in the shadow of Didion’s, with her “Goodbye” as their guide. These writers — including Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, Maggie Estep, and Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel — bring a decidedly contemporary world-weariness to their reflections on what can’t help but be a pretty tired subject. If living in New York is an established rite of passage, this collection suggests that the act of leaving it behind is an equally important milestone.

As laid out by Didion and the anthology’s contributors, it happens like this: First there’s anticipation, imagining how your life will finally make sense when you arrive. The actual experience of living here is one of finding your place, followed by an intense feeling of ownership. You can stay at that point for years. But eventually, sometimes without knowing it, you begin the slow slide toward a moment of decisiveness. Sometime after that, there’s the actual leaving. And then, the having left. Living in New York turns out to be a process of earning nostalgia — hoarding enough memories to give you the kind of claim on a place that makes it possible to leave it. When you reach your limit and set out elsewhere, memories are your consolation prize. (Bonus points for writing about them.)

If you’re tired of hearing about how New York is the center of the universe, you’re not alone. Even those of us who live here and love it get annoyed at the relentless fascination with the city, the way people project so much onto it and then feel betrayed when it doesn’t live up to their expectations. (Emma Straub, who grew up here, captures this tension nicely in her essay, writing, “because my hometown is New York City, everyone else thinks it belongs to them, too.”) But even in basic ways, the city is still special enough to justify the fixation. It’s concentrated. It’s diverse. It’s where a lot of important things have happened and influential people have lived, and so it is full of history and legend. It’s a place of ideals, “where anything is possible.” And yet it’s also a place of limits, one people leave when their desire for more space or stability — or very often, a family — begins to clash with reality.

It’s not clear how much it matters that Didion’s disillusionment unfolded in New York. There are things about the city that can hasten that feeling, but “Goodbye to All That” doesn’t focus on them. Still, the essay is so inextricable from its setting that when she writes, “Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York,” it’s not entirely convincing. The anthologized writers, for the most part, are talking very specifically about New York: its pressures, disappointments, contradictions, cross-streets, and clichés. And they tend to reinforce time-honored New York mythology rather than complicating it. The question of whether or not New York should matter is overwhelmed by the extent to which it plainly does.

In these pages, New York is “the one that got away” and “love at first sight.” It’s personified as a drug, and a seductress. We read about day-to-day things: tiny apartments and crappy jobs and drinking too much. Residents’ (overstated) preference for wearing black, the competing smells of roasting nuts and sweltering garbage — the word “urine” comes up regularly — and the annoyance of shopping for groceries without a car. Some of the writers here have left New York only to return, others have left for good (at least so far). Some are wistful, others recall their time in the city with relief that it’s over. They note the ways New York has changed, and how they’ve changed along with it, in one case raging at the city for not being as cool as it once was. Some say they left because they couldn’t be their “true self” here. Others leave, only to return because they realize this is the only place that thee authentic self can thrive.

Many of them come to New York, as contributor Marie Myung-Ok Lee observes, “with an inchoate sense that writers went there and then stuff happened.” That stuff, they hope, will include excitement and inspiration and connections and book deals, seasoned with just enough struggle to make the whole thing feel raw and real and earned. All of the writers in Botton’s anthology have stories to tell about their lives in New York, things that happened to them here that they’ll forever associate with this place. But then other things happen. Relationships end and rents rise and favorite restaurants close and jobs are lost, and the whole city loses its luster. Those things become stories, too — and in some cases, reasons to live their next chapter somewhere else.

A number of the essays here are thoughtful and vivid, though the anthology as a whole is undercut by repetition. Elisa Albert, who now lives in Albany, N.Y., brings a rare sense of urgency to her essay about coming to terms with her new home. “You actually love it here, it turns out,” she insists, speaking to the difficulty of making her mark in the city she left behind. “Look closely: it’s a promising place…Put your money and effort and energy here, where it’s possible to make a dent.” Melissa Febos, back in New York after a stint upstate, reflects, “Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as a strong as your reasons for going.” Roxane Gay grew up fantasizing about living in New York, until she realized she didn’t actually want to: “I had learned the difference between being a writer, which can happen anywhere, and performing the role of Writer, which in my very specific and detailed fantasies could only happen in New York.”

It helps to see New York in contrast to places these writers lived before and after: among them two Portlands (Maine and Oregon), Madison, Wisconsin; a nameless town in Connecticut, Moscow, Paris, and Montreal. One of the best essays comes from Ruth Curry, whose story begins and ends in New York but otherwise unfolds in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Curry moved to be with a boyfriend. The unraveling of their relationship is spurred on by Curry’s status as a foreigner, a resident of an objectively beautiful place where “differences were not so much differences as they were inversions or transpositions just similar enough to fool you into thinking nothing had changed.”

Fittingly, Meghan Daum’s essay “My Misspent Youth” is reprinted here. First published in The New Yorker in 1999, Daum’s unsparing look at how the dream of New York is undone by the all too real cost of living in it has become a kind of next-generation “Goodbye to All That.” Introducing the piece in this collection, Daum says that she regularly hears from people who just discovered her essay for the first time and “felt it to be describing his or her own life…and grieved alongside me for a version of New York — and by extension, a version of adulthood, of being human, or being alive — that was discontinued long ago and may have, in fact, never been the commodity we like to crack it up to be.”

Disenchantment is remarkably consistent across generations, so “Goodbye to All That” invites endless imitation even as it’s praised for being timeless. Reading Didion’s essay today, it’s easy to think nothing has really changed since 1967. Whether you find that comforting or troubling will depend in part on your capacity for moving on — which might have something to do with the amount of time you’ve spent living in New York.

The Posthumous Jim Carroll: What Do We Owe a Dead Writer?

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I can’t rationalize my teenage obsession with Jim Carroll in any really satisfying way. From where I stand now, it looks predictable in a way that makes me cringe. I was about 13 when I saw the Leonardo DiCaprio movie of The Basketball Diaries, and while it’s not exactly cool to admit that this adaptation—in retrospect, pretty middling—is what got me into Carroll’s actual diaries and poems, there it is. It didn’t take long after that for me to make him into my morose teen idol. I scrawled his name in the margins of my notebooks and in Sharpie on the wall inside my closet. I Xeroxed his author photo from Fear of Dreaming—his face looking beatific and ageless, his chin scruffy but cheeks dreamily smooth—and taped it up by my bed, near a copy of his prose poem “Reaching France” (“When I reach France, every promise will be kept,” he wrote, sounding both prophetic and world-weary). I kept another copy of the author photo folded up in sixths in my wallet, getting worn and creased into precise little squares.

It was the kind of fixation lots of people depend on at that age: an intense fandom that becomes a way of identifying, a lust for someone real but half-imagined who you can cling to, idealize, and stubbornly call your own. This elusive, impossible love was the definition of romance to me back then. I coveted the raw, hard-won knowledge that appeared to come from a life of passion and danger and drug addiction. As a relatively sheltered teenager who idealized all sorts of trouble I couldn’t quite bring myself to actually get into, there was nothing more alluring than the survival Jim Carroll seemed to represent.

As I got older, I figured out that he was a writer, not a sage. (One definition of maturity, perhaps?) His words resonated even without my adolescent mania to inflate them. Reading him felt less urgent, which was a kind of loss, but it also felt less fraught. Still, when Carroll died in 2009, the news gave me a weird jolt, my reaction tangled up with the way I knew I would have received it at age 15. I felt like I should light a candle, wear black, do some sort of ritualized mourning—memorializing not just Carroll, no doubt, but the version of myself for whom poetry and its writers were simply beautiful and true. Instead, I made dinner and watched TV before going to bed, wishing I could get myself to feel more stricken.

It was both fitting and terrible to learn that Carroll had died at his writing desk. Not long after his death, I was pleased to hear that Viking would be publishing The Petting Zoo, the novel Carroll had been working on for about two decades. Apparently he’d been “putting the finishing touches” on it, and the book was close enough to completion that it would be an indignity to leave it unpublished and unread. This was reassuring. Carroll may have been gone, but in the comforting, ghostly way that artists do, he would endure.

I got a galley of The Petting Zoo in the mail at some point last summer, and expected to tear through it right away. Instead, I picked it up and flipped through it a few times. I read the first chapter while standing on the subway. I put it down again. I picked it back up and sighed a lot. I was worried about separating my anticipation of the book as an event and a symbol from its actual substance—that I wouldn’t be able to, and also that I would.

In light of its author’s death, it was hard to approach The Petting Zoo on its own terms, or to arrive at a judgment of it separate from Carroll’s overall legacy. The novel focuses on 38-year-old art star Billy Wolfram as he grapples with fame, lack of inspiration and a pained sort of asceticism in New York City, Carroll’s lifelong home. (“[T]he prime despair came from the realization that my work was totally bereft of the ethereal, or what I call ‘the inner register,’ that ambiguous quality that enables the viewer to approach the painting more from the heart than the intellect,” Billy rambles to a doctor in the mental ward where he does a brief stint early in the book.) Though Carroll was a writer and Billy (mostly) a painter, they share not just a hometown but a precociousness that started to betray them as they got older and more well-known. Where Carroll’s early work grew out of his experiences with drugs and sex, though, Billy “attributed his artistic edge” to his all-around abstinence.

As a New York novel, The Petting Zoo is a many-layered thing, calling attention to the fact that Carroll’s glory days and death played out on the same streets as his protagonist’s artistic crisis, in a city Billy considers “an appendage of his body.” Set in a place that’s been claimed by countless writers in the creation of their own myths, the book raises the question of what Carroll’s fictional New York has in common with his memoiristic and poetic versions, and whether it even matters.

All of this could make for some pretty captivating reading. As a novel, though, The Petting Zoo just doesn’t work. The characters are wooden and the writing is ponderous; the whole thing feels overstuffed but ultimately lifeless and stagy. Oh no, I thought to myself when I finally started reading in earnest. This was not what I wanted to find, critically or sentimentally. That the novel was so disappointing only compounded the heartbreak of Carroll’s untimely death, because it wouldn’t offer the hoped for (and frankly, expected) chance to bolster his reputation. Instead, the book basically contradicts it.

Reviewers had the unenviable task of considering this respected writer in light of what most agreed to be his less-than-inspiring final effort. Many loaded their pieces with biographical information, taking care to mention Carroll’s great earlier work, his influence on other writers, and their own admiration for him. They noted that the novel had been highly anticipated and that ardent fans will love it simply for existing. Actual critical verdicts—which mostly ranged from vague disappointment to outright dismay—were a sort of footnote to wistful considerations of Carroll’s legacy, pre- and post-Petting Zoo.

“With such a burden of context, the novel must show true, great purpose, something Carroll didn’t have time to oversee,” wrote Susanna Sonnenberg in the San Francisco Chronicle. “I wished Carroll was still here to tighten up these bubbling pages, to wrestle all that aching talent under control.” In Bookforum, Brandon Stosuy allowed, “this farewell fits well on the bookshelf with a bunch of other uneven, ‘edgy’ ’80s New York novels. Just pretend it didn’t come out in 2010.” Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Carroll’s compatriot Richard Hell couldn’t find much to praise. The novel’s “strongest discernible structure is in its correspondence to Carroll’s being, to his history and sensibility and psychology,” he reflected. “That’s irrelevant and unfair as literary assessment, but it seems more meaningful to read the novel that way than from any critical standpoint.”

Even the rare complements came off as a little disingenuous, like gestures of deference to a writer who deserved some, maybe especially in death. The book “has its discrete pleasures,” noted Sonnenberg in her Chronicle review. “If The Petting Zoo does not succeed as a novel, as the archeology of the artist, it is fascinating,” wrote Nancy Rommelmann in The Oregonian . And in Bookforum, Stosuy threw the author a bone: “Carroll clearly put a lot of himself into it via loving descriptions of the urban landscape and evocative life-story details.” It’s worth wondering (and impossible to know) whether there would be even this thin generosity had the author lived to stand up to it—or whether the published book might have looked different in that case, and provoked other reactions.

Writing in the New Yorker, Thomas Mallon’s take on the book he calls “depressingly unnecessary” was particularly incisive, if almost painful to read. The book’s protagonist, he writes, is “Jim Carroll methodically stripped of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The willful absence of all three elements makes for a hero who is not so much pure—in the yearning way of The Basketball Diaries—as weirdly bleached.” In his brutal last line, Mallon imagines “Carroll was at his desk, ransacking the exhausted imagination inside his vanishing body, surely knowing that its very real gifts had long since been spent.”

It’s true that writers rarely get a meaningful say in responding to their reviews (that’s not the point of them, after all), and that readers don’t need an embodied author to make a story come alive. But in the most straightforward way, an author’s existence in the wake of publication is it’s own statement: a plain yet significant “I’m still here.” He can give readings, do interviews, make statements about his work that—even if not in response to specific criticisms—can offer a different entry point. He can write other books. As long as he’s alive, a writer stays part of the conversation about his work, even if he chooses not to participate in it. Without him, things can get a little strange, as fans and critics jockey to have their say—to speak for a writer as much as about him.

In November, to celebrate The Petting Zoo’s publication, Carroll’s old friends Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye hosted a reading and performance at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square. It happened to be the night after Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids, which (though focused on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe) contained a short and poignant section about Carroll, whom she met in the early 70s when both were in their twenties and mostly unknown. The allegiance of the several hundred fans of varying ages in attendance, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on white plastic folding chairs in the sprawling fourth floor events space, was mixed. Many were holding copies of Smith’s book, not Carroll’s.

Smith proclaimed that Carroll was “universally hailed as the best poet of his generation,” surely a bit of an overstatement, if a forgivable one. Reading from her brief note that prefaces the novel, she declared, “Jim’s mythic energy is at once laconic and vibrating.” Lenny Kaye pointed out that “Jim’s journey through space and time formed a perfect circle,” because he was born and died in the same neighborhood, “where he was and always will be.” They both read sections of the novel; aloud and out of context, they were even trickier to find a foothold in.

Sitting there, my mind wandering, I wondered what this was like for Smith and Kaye. They looked unruffled, posing for the requisite photos before heading onstage and making their way through an hour-long program that included a few songs along with sections of the novel and the bit from Just Kids in which Carroll makes an appearance. But I figured it had to be surreal for them, no matter how many tributes they’d fronted for dead friends over the decades. Their presence seemed like the execution of some sort of unspoken contract. If you die first, is it the responsibility of your famous friends to help sustain your myth? To read your words to a large crowd in a chain bookstore, and sign their own names in copies of your book?

As the event came to a close, Smith held up a copy of The Petting Zoo and urged the audience to buy one. She was sure, she said, that Carroll had left various scribblings in his notebooks that will come to light, and so she didn’t want to call this book his final words. But “this is what was on his mind,” she told us. “This is what he wanted to give us the most.” If we loved or admired Jim Carroll for any reason, it follows, we have something of a responsibility to receive the book graciously, even gratefully.

A photo of Carroll on the poster promoting the night’s event was the same ageless image I kept in my wallet as a teenager. It sent a pretty clear message about how to best remember him: as beautiful and resilient and full of promise, not the ailing, struggling writer who last read publicly in 2007. While the man in the photograph is Jim Carroll, tellingly, he’s not the author of The Petting Zoo.

Image credit: Pamela Glenn, Jacket photo from Fear of Dreaming.

Eating Your Feelings: Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

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At one point as I was reading Aimee Bender’s remarkable new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, I was eating the food that is, to me, more delicious and comforting than almost anything else in the world: shredded cheddar-jack cheese melted on Tostitos tortilla chips. I stick a pan of them under the broiler and let the cheese bubble and harden a bit; the chips get just a little burnt so the whole thing is a crunchy, salty miracle. That same week, I devoured the very first lobster roll I’ve ever had, crisp buttery bread butting up against the cool, liberally spiced meat. Later, there was a batch of sangria made to salvage an overly sweet bottle of red wine, saved by some fresh lemon juice, tart nectarines and the strawberries that have just come into season. There were frozen pierogies. There were overcooked eggs cloaked with Kraft singles.

What I ate while absorbed in the pages of this book seemed to matter more than with most others, because Bender’s latest is really about the intimate experience of food. Her protagonist, Rose Edelstein, has an excruciatingly sensitive palate. When her mother bakes her the titular lemon cake (with chocolate frosting) for her ninth birthday, Rose realizes she has the burdensome ability to taste people’s feelings in the food they cook. Behind her mother’s whirling energy and loving gestures, Rose tastes her emptiness, so bitter she can barely choke it down:

[T]he goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary…

On the surface, it’s a natural premise for an author whose odd, twisty stories have featured a man with a giant hole in his stomach, people who have pumpkins for heads, and a husband who returns home from war without his lips. But it seemed to me at first more like the seed of one of those fantastical tales than a premise that could sustain a longer narrative. But actually, it does even more than that: Attached to a gorgeous, devastating coming-of-age story, Bender’s descriptions of how feelings and flavors mingle manages to be some of the most sumptuous, original—and really, personal—food writing I’ve ever read.

Ultimately, it was food writing—mouth-watering restaurant reviews, travelogues, narrative recipes, profiles of dishes and the chefs responsible for them—along with (somewhat embarrassingly) the televised insistence of Anthony Bourdain, that made me reverse thirteen years of vegetarianism last summer. I’m still not used to looking over a menu and understanding that the whole thing is open to me. I didn’t change my diet as part of any kind of manifesto or major ethical shift; I did it because I got addicted to reading and learning about food, and I wanted to know what it was like to eat an oyster. I wanted to taste the foods whose aromas that taunted me. Having grown up in a kosher home before I cut out meat entirely, there was a long list of things I’d never even tried. Changing my rules changed my sense of the world, and of my place in it.

So maybe I was particularly good audience for a story so invested in the secret life of food. But as so many of us become obsessed with the story and singularity of what’s on our plates, the literalness of Rose’s tastes really speaks to the complicated life of a human appetite. Read with a certain mindset, the book can seem to portray a sort of locavore dystopia, subtly pointing out that we might not really want to know everything about everything we put in our mouths. Thankfully, Bender only hints at this ethical dimension of Rose’s abilities. She’s also not really interested in the rather fascinating implications of what could be understood as an eating disorder, barely describing the state of Rose’s body, or the character’s own sense of it. Instead, Bender cares about how we live with food, and through it: the subtle dramas behind a toasted bagel overwhelmed by cream cheese, the mind-bending Neapolitan pizza from the swanky new restaurant, a stale bag of chips, a berry crisp warm from the oven.

I couldn’t help thinking: If I was like Rose, the juicy earthiness of the organic heirloom tomatoes I excitedly bought at the farmer’s market would matter less than the fact that they ended up tossed in some pasta thrown together by a frazzled, underemployed writer. I’m happy not to know the precise taste of disillusionment, but weeks after reading this novel, I’m finding Bender’s rendering of the possibility hard to shake.

While I’m obsessed with food, I don’t really cook. For years, I didn’t even have a working oven. I love the idea of cooking: I bookmark recipes regularly and with optimism, and whenever I get it together to actually make something—peanut butter brownies for my boyfriend’s birthday, gnocchi with summer vegetables, a simple sauce made from cream, vegetable stock, lemon zest and capers—I’m overly impressed with myself. Mostly I eat overpriced takeout, and otherwise rely on jarred sauce, frozen burritos from Trader Joe’s, Indian food that comes in a little silver pouch and like magic, needs only two minutes in the microwave. While I eat, I watch the Food Network. I read the articles and passionate blogs about how cooking is so easy—and so worth the pay-off!—and I nod my head in agreement. I mean to do it. I aspire to do it. And then I order Thai.

To avoid ingesting insights along with her meals, Rose learns to get by mostly on vending machine food, snacks produced on mechanized assembly lines and “made by no one.” But her powerful taste buds can still suss out the distinct essences imbued by different factories. As for produce, “[B]y the time I was twelve, I could distinguish an orange slice from California from an orange slice from Florida in under five seconds because California’s was rounder-tasting.” A few minor characters in the novel recognize Rose’s usefulness: a conniving high school pal has her over to taste things she cooks, in the hopes that Rose can decode feelings she can’t identify for herself (mostly, she wants to know if her affection for a particular boy is the real thing). Later, a woman offers to hire her to decipher the emotions of troubled children. But Rose isn’t interested in parlaying her skill into a career as some kind of food psychic, handy as that might be. She doesn’t feel superior or special; mostly, she’s just jealous of other people’s obliviousness.

The food that tastes good to Rose has less to do with perfection than honesty. One cafeteria worker at her school makes pizza she can tolerate: “She was sad, true, but the sadness was so real and so known in it that I found the tomato sauce and the melted cheese highly edible, even good.” After she graduates high school, Rose starts eating with more focus, searching beyond quality for what can only be called authenticity. At an Iranian restaurant, she finds “such a rich grief in the lamb shank” that it “was like having a good cry, the clearing of the air after weight has been held.” A dim-sum place “knew its rage in a real way, and I ate bao after bao and left that one tanked up and energized.” And terrifically, “An Ethiopian place on Fairfax near Olympic made me laugh, like the chef had a private joke with the food, one that had something to do with trains, and baldness. I didn’t even get the joke, but the waitress kept refilling my water and asking if I was okay.” It’s not until late in the book that she confronts her fear of eating food she’s made herself—and when she does, her life begins to change.

Certainly, despite her expertise in these pages, Bender doesn’t have the final word on which emotions translate to food and why. You can argue with the range of Rose’s perceptions: Why, for instance, does she taste people’s feelings, but not those of the animals she eats? When it comes to flavor, why is there such a difference between authentic sadness and superficial misery? But perhaps the most striking thing about Rose’s relationship to food is that it is intensely, almost unbearably, current. She tastes the way people are feeling in the moment, the sentiments absorbed by what their hands touch. Meanwhile, in the world outside the book, the emotion of food is mostly related to memories, and to the past: moments and people and whole seasons can be conjured by the taste of pancakes, chicken soup, or even just a thin film of blueberry jam on toast.

Soon after I finished the book, I went to Toronto for my grandmother’s unveiling. At my aunt’s house after we returned from the cemetery, people milled around a table covered with platters of cookies and cakes and fruit, and drank icy pink lemonade of an unnervingly electric shade. As I stood next to my mother and talked to family and friends who were still in shock from my grandmother’s sudden death last summer, I picked at a slice of moist blueberry coffee cake my mother had made in a spate of focused, likely fraught baking for this gathering. In at least that case, I didn’t need to taste what went into the cake to know what did.